In 2009, for reasons that I struggle to comprehend, I decided to run for the Chair of Liberal Youth. In an effort to process the strange array of emotions I still feel about that rather odd time in my life, here is my account.
This chapter in my life began when I met Naomi Smith and struck up a conversation with her at the Autumn 2008 Liberal Democrat party conference. I immediately liked Naomi and after chatting with her, I decided to get involved with the youth wing of the Liberal Democrat party. I’m someone who likes to be busy and at this time in my life I was looking for more ways to fill my time. Volunteering seemed to me to be the perfect way to spend my time, develop a friendgroup outside Uni, nurture my budding interest in politics and “make a difference”. I took up a recently vacated position on the executive committee of the organisation and was enthusiastically co-opted in.
As I became more and more involved with Liberal Youth, it became apparent that all was not well in the state of Denmark. Naomi Smith, her boyfriend, Paul Pettinger, and Liberal Youth’s Campaign Manager, Ben Mathis, took me to one side at the Liberal Youth Autumn Conference in Guildford and explained the situation to me.
Their story was whilst executing her office, Liberal Youth’s Chair, Elaine Bagshaw had thus far been moderately incompetent and low-key dishonest. Her incompetence and dishonesty has caused several members of the council to resign and alienated two other significant people in the organisation; the honorary president: Naomi Smith, and the organisation’s one permanent member of staff: Paul Pettinger.
For context, I should mention that Naomi and Paul were (and still are) in a romantic relationship with each other.
The discord began when Elaine declared that she would back Naomi to be the honorary president of Liberal Youth whilst privately encouraging Tim Farron MP to stand. The trouble is, the Liberal Democrats are too small a community for that type of thing to be a secret and the revelation that Elaine has gone behind her back has understandably offended and upset Naomi.
(I’m not sure why Elaine did this, I suspect it’s for two reasons — Elaine didn’t want an active honorary president like Naomi, she wanted a symbolic honorary president only. And/or she wanted the opportunity to hobnob with senior politicians to further her political career. Maybe she just didn’t like Naomi or didn’t want to be caught between Naomi and Paul? I just don’t know.)
Elaine had also made a complete cock-up of Liberal Youth’s Freshers’ Campaign (campaign material given to University students during their first week as students). Not only were the Freshers’ materials underwhelming in design, they lacked an imprint which makes them illegal to use during an election. Had Elaine shown the materials to Paul Pettinger or the Liberal Youth Campaigns Manager, Ben Mathis, this problem would have been easily remedied. For reasons unknown, Elaine sent the materials to the printers without showing them to any of the other members of the executive, resulting in lacklustre, unusable materials and wasted funds. The designs Ben had created were binned.
The organisation had also run up a huge budget surplus largely because they didn’t do anything. They didn’t organise protests, they weren’t running any campaigns, they weren’t holding any activist development events and their one chance to make a big impact — the Freshers’ Campaign — had been a disaster. When I joined the organisation I was surprised with just how much money they had in their account and how under-utilised their member of staff was. Management at LibDem HQ was pretty weak all round so fixing this complete misuse of funds wasn’t deemed a priority. Let’s face it — the LibDems have bigger problems, but a campaigning organisation that can’t campaign is a waste of money even for them.
After a year of her being Chair, the relationship between Naomi, Paul, and Ben with Elaine had completely broken down and they were organising a coup against her. Naomi had submitted a motion of no confidence in Elaine, which even by student politics standards was quite shocking as it was almost unheard of for an honorary president to publicly denounce the Chair of the organisation.
Elaine stood outside a lecture theatre at the University of Surrey as the members of Liberal Youth debated whether or not to ‘no-confidence’ their Chair. The motion was split with and equal number of ‘Ayes’ and ‘Nays’ and a majority of the attendees not voting. I voted with the ‘Ayes’ though in retrospect I only did so to gain Naomi’s approval. The motion didn’t pass, however, the bad blood that was accumulating was finally brought to the surface. The ‘Ayes’ versus the ‘Nays’ showed what side everyone was on.
With the campaigns non-existent and the number of executive committee member resignations in the high teens, Naomi, Paul and Ben genuinely believed that Elaine wouldn’t stand as Chair for a second year. It was a great surprise to them all (and myself) when Elaine submitted her candidacy the day before the nominations closed.
And so the race began…
First of all, for context, I must tell you about where we were in our lives. I was 20 years old and in my first year of Uni after taking a gap year that turned into two years. Elaine was a recent graduate and a few years older than me who was temping in London at the time. I have to admit that I didn’t really know Elaine very well and hadn’t had much of an opportunity to spend a lot of time with her despite us working together from the Autumn of the year before to the LY Election that took place at the beginning of the next year.
In the run up to the election, I made a decision that would draw a strong spotlight to my glaring inexperience almost immediately. That was ‘running a slate’. I had no idea what a slate was when this was suggested to me. Ben Mathis, however, who offered to do the artwork for all of our manifestos, said: “It worked last time,” so I agreed. I trusted Ben and I genuinely thought it was just about the artwork. I didn’t realise at the time that ‘running a slate’ was an overtly political and divisive move or that it would be perceived as being as aggressively ‘anti-Elaine’ as it was.
This is precisely why you shouldn’t run for the Chair of an organisation when you’ve only belonged to it for less than a year. (As the election went on I realised more and more I didn’t really ‘get’ many of the idiosyncrasies of Liberal Youth and tried to spend more time talking to older members to get as much insight as I could. All in vain, I might add.) LY was not, at the time, very accesible for newbies to get into and was dominated by a persistent ‘old guard.’
On releasing the manifestos, I was immediately set upon by one of Elaine’s supporters, a Uni friend of hers named Martin Shapland for running a slate. (Martin has recently made a name for himself for being an insufferable woke-scold, who is happy to throw racist epithets in one direction whilst making a big show of being offended when he suspects they are being thrown in the other direction but back then he was just an odd sort of LibDem party toady.) Martin had previously asked me if I was going to run for anything and I tried to evade the question — knowing that he couldn’t keep his mouth shut and my plans to run for Chair would be outed immediately. This was interpreted by Martin as me lying to him and it immediately got his back up. At the time I didn’t understand why he was so rankled by the slate because I didn’t understand its significance.
Elaine and I also fundamentally differed in our visions for the organisation. I wanted a radical, bold, daring, liberal youth organisation that holds protests, sticks it to the man and rages against the establishment. I wanted a fun youth group, that was more about being social, making statements and developing young activists. The way I saw it was that nobody really cares about the youth movement of a third party in a two party system and it should be more about socialising and engaging students. To the best of my understanding, Elaine wanted a vehicle for becoming a politician herself (and for brown-nosing senior politicians). To my dismay, I have to admit that most of the people who join organisations like Liberal Youth want what Elaine wanted. To stuff letter boxes with leaflets for other campaigners and be mini-politicians until they themselves become prospective parliamentary candidates and have a whole army of young liberal letter box stuffers at their disposal.
Despite encouraging me to run, Ben Mathis repeatedly referred to being Chair of Liberal Youth as a ‘poisoned chalice’. Even though this was meant to be a facetious off-hand comment, I have to admit that this shook my resolve. When I think back to this time, it really should have been Ben who ran to oust Elaine. I don’t know why Ben didn’t — perhaps it was because he sensed he wasn’t well-liked by members or because he was a cowardly, cowardly custard unwilling to take the job on himself? Happy to let someone else drink the poison…
In the new year, Elaine, myself and several of the other characters in this unfolding tragic farce attended the Chinese Liberal Democrats Chinese New Year’s Celebration. Also in attendance were people like Naomi, other senior activists, and various MPs. It was at this event that the boys involved in the London branch of Liberal Youth asked me for ‘devolved funding’. They wanted me to give them funds from the national account. This is not something the Chair of Liberal Youth can do, and if they can, they shouldn’t. This is certainly something that should have had the approval of the entire committee if it did take place. All regions were meant to get the same. The London Liberal Youth boys should never have asked to be put above other regions in this way. I refused to give them an answer. To my horror, I later find out that Elaine had agreed to give them money, hence they chose to support her rather than me. (I’m not sure if she ever did though but unlike me she wasn’t stupid enough to say ‘no’ to them that night.)
Up until this point, I’ve been incredibly unflattering towards Elaine, but I must admit some major factors in her favour. Elaine has real grit and handles stress very well. I, on the other hand handle stress poorly, have a short temper, and whilst I don’t shirk from confrontation, I don’t particularly enjoy it. Elaine is a committed politician who plays the game very well, always says the right things at the right time, and tells people what they want to hear — I am ideologue who doesn’t care about being on a team. Elaine cares about elections, I care about policy. A political party usually needs both types to survive. There was room enough for both, but not in this election.
Before the Liberal Youth Spring Conference on the 14th February 2009, I’m already having doubts about running for this position but am ploughing on full speed anyway. I just have a looming sense of gloom and I just feel like I’m not enjoying this. I’m not used to be attacked by troglodytes like Martin Shapland, but I don’t want to disappoint anyone who has supported me or encouraged me to run. I also feel as though everything I do is interpreted as an attack on Elaine even though it’s just fact. Pointing out that over fifteen people have resigned from the committee under Elaine was a fact, it was not an attack on Elaine, but the implication was clear.
Before the race was full-swing, Naomi had encouraged another one of her friends, Matthew Wilkes to stand for a position on the executive committee. On speaking to Matt, he didn’t seem particularly engaged or enthusiastic which left me confused. I later learnt from Naomi that she asked Matt to stand so she could “whip against Elaine” when the executive votes despite Matt not really wanting to stand. At a later executive meeting, after Matt had resigned, Elaine expressed exasperation at why he’d bother to run at all. It is at this point that I have to face an uncomfortable fact — Naomi is not willing to put the best interests of the organisation before ousting Elaine.
As the race went on, I slowly become aware that the impression I’ve got about Elaine from Naomi and Paul isn’t really accurate. Whilst Elaine was incompetent, she wasn’t malicious — as Naomi and Paul had led me to believe. Naomi and Paul also have a rather nasty nickname for Elaine: “Slagpuss.” It turns out they have rather nasty nicknames for everyone outside their friend group (email me and I’ll tell you yours…). One of Elaine’s supporters, a girl who had stood up for her when she was being no-conned was referred to as: “Slagkitten,” and another was “Slagpixie.” Paul mocked Elaine’s working-class background and frequently referred to parts of her anatomy as “udders.” I think you can guess which.
It occurred to me for the first time that maybe, just maybe, I’m soliciting the approval of two people who aren’t particularly good or kind. This is a thought I dismiss as these are my friends and I like them. Naomi Smith, in particular, is an incredibly impressive, competent and likeable person. She was easily the most impressive people I had ever met at that point.
I also began to have more and more empathy with Elaine. Even though she wasn’t very good, perhaps it’s too much to expect young adults barely out of University, with limited or no professional experience, to manage a member of staff and to run national political campaigns? This is probably why the Conservatives keep their youth organisation on a tight leash. The trouble is it’s just so easy to believe your opponent is bad/wrong/evil. It’s convenient. It makes sense. It gives you a reason to want to ‘defeat’ them. But that’s not the way the world is. The world is shades of grey.
The Liberal Youth Spring Conference took place on the weekend of the 14th February 2009 and at this point I would say that I was winning. I definitely have the support of the ‘Freak and the Geeks’ as the odder members of the organisation are affectionately known. In anticipation, I worked really hard on my husting’s speech leading up to the conference. As a joke, I decided to write a novelty piece of policy and submit it to conference.
The policy in essence was this: Put Jerusalem on eBay as a solution to the Middle East peace process. Joke policies were a common occurrence at Liberal Youth and I really wanted to join in. When I wrote the policy, I thought it was the most hilarious thing I’d ever come up with. I’d forgotten that not everyone finds my sense of humour even remotely funny or appealing. I’d say the room was split 50/50. Some people did get it and found it funny. They also agreed that the organisation should do more outrageous stunts and protests for attention.
The other members were offended and told me I was a disgrace. Two people even resigned (from Liberal Youth, not the Liberal Democrats). I was shocked by the utter po-faced responses of the woke-scolds and how seriously they were all taking it. I was also shocked at the accusation I was deliberately trying to hurt the organisation after I had dedicated so much of my free-time and even my own money towards it. One individual who attended the conference referred to me as a “terrorist”. Charming! Mine was by no means the most offensive or unusual novelty policy to have been presented at a conference of the young Liberals.
Something that also struck me as rather odd was people reacting negatively to standard campaigning. For example, I had my own campaign badges, rosettes, and leaflets made up to support my campaign. Elaine’s supporters interpreted me giving these out to my supporters as an attack, but Elaine was perfectly entitled to do the same. If every attempt I make to campaign in a normal way is interpreted negatively then how exactly was I suppose to campaign?
Between the Liberal Youth Spring Conference and Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Harrogate, London Liberal Youth decide to make a statement telling their members to vote for Elaine and not to vote for myself or Ben Mathis. The statement was released by a gentlemen names Edwin Loo, a student at LSE, with the blessing of the rest of the London Liberal Youth leadership. I’ve tried to find the statement, but I suspect it’s lost. I only remember it being incredibly personal and I was deeply hurt by it. Edwin later called me in a fluster asking me to “call off my dogs.” Apparently, he’d received a lot of blow back as a result of the statement and he wanted me to tell all the people who were attacking him to stop. Only, I hadn’t asked anyone to attack Edwin. I’d gone to play rugby instead. If he was being attacked, that was a direct response to his own ill-considered statement, and I was in no mood to help him clean up his own mess.
By this point, I was so sad and so wound up by the whole ordeal, that I went to my GP and to get anti-anxiety medication. I was genuinely sorrowful about the entire mess and I was well aware I had lost control of the whole situation. I just remember feeling that I didn’t want to be there. In that situation. I just wanted to go back to concentrating on Uni. The Liberal Youth forums and the executive email list was constantly in some sort of flame war. I just wished someone would make it stop.
This brings us to the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference Harrogate. This was the last big conference before voting in the election opened and it began with a party rally. I had got to Harrogate before Naomi, Paul and Ben and was sitting in the auditorium alone surrounded by people I didn’t know. The rally was packed to the rafters. One of the speakers was, of course, Elaine. It appeared that the powers that be were keen to appeal to the youth. On stage Elaine bragged about her record. Around me there were several guffaws from other Liberal Youth members who knew just how pauce that record was. But what else was she meant to do? A wave of ire came over me and I decide to heckle Elaine. To her credit, Elaine merely winced, shot a look in my direction, and then carried on as if nothing had ever happened.
As someone who has worked in theatre and comedy, I have been heckled before and since. Many times. In the moment, I honestly didn’t think it was such a big deal as it was later made out to be. Politicians get heckled all the time. I only regret it because it made Elaine look like a victim. She wasn’t a victim in this situation, she was the incumbent Chair with a record to defend. I also felt that the powers that be had deliberately put her on stage in an effort to get people to vote for her as the establishment candidate. A subtle gesture of support for her candidacy.
Later in the conference bar, Martin Shapland subjected me to a barrage of abuse which involved implying that I was a ‘race traitor’ for not supporting Palestine over Israel since I’m part-Arab and grew up in the Middle East. (My opinions on the Middle East are more nuanced…) Martin also objects to the fact that I refer to myself as Caucasian since my father is Arab and my mother is English. Naturally, as someone who likes to talk about race a lot, Martin knows very little about race beyond the chip on his shoulder. Arabs are Caucasian and I’m essentially the product of a dark Caucasian and a light Caucasian. Offended that Martin is effectively telling me what race I am, heated words are passed between us. This altercation prompted me to make an official complaint about Martin to the party. Being Liberal Democrats they came to the conclusion that it was a ‘he said-she said’ matter despite the fact that I’d offered to provide witnesses. Typical LibDems! Can’t walk past a fence without sitting on it…
As I Uni student, I couldn’t just leave and travel the country campaigning. This gave Elaine an advantage in that she can take time off work and travel to the other conferences happening around the country. She travels to Glasgow and attends Scottish LibDem conference where she is alleged to have told people that I was mentally ill. If she did, then whatever. Looking back on the situation, I actually find this quite funny. I was definitely under more mental strain than I could handle. Elaine has more endurance when it comes to withstanding stressful situations.
The boys at Scottish Liberal Youth were also a weird bunch. They took to Elaine as she had actually had a chance to go and meet them. Some of them start to make weird Facebook groups and false profiles attempting to catfish me. Luckily, I’m in no mood by that point and wisely didn’t respond to any of that.
We’re about three quarters of the way through the campaign and ‘my side’ have effectively lost control of the narrative of the campaign. Because Elaine has upset so many people during the tenure of her chair-ship, said people were using my campaign to attack Elaine by proxy. A prime example of this is the ‘Downfall’ parody of Elaine. When I first saw this video, I was rendered speechless with a mixture of laughter, incredulity and abject horror. I asked Ben Mathis if he was responsible for the video — he neither confirmed nor denied that he had made it. I then endured a slew of abuse both online and via text messages from Martin Shapland and others who naturally assumed I, or “my side,” was responsible for the video despite the fact that I had become aware of the video at the same time everyone else had. I had neither consented to its creation nor would have ever thought of making such a video myself. It was I, however, who was assigned the blame for it. I didn’t find out until years later that the video had actually been made by Nigel Smith and Seth Thevoz — two gentlemen I wasn’t well acquainted with at that time but who happen to be close friends of Naomi Smith and Paul Pettinger.
It was Ben Mathis’s idea to leak to the Tory Bear blog initially, though he was by no means the only one. As the election went on, I found the leaks to the very charming Harry Cole more and more thrilling. As I’ve mentioned, I was in my first year of Uni and the experience wasn’t turning out as fun or exciting as it had been sold to me. My year so far had contained only two incidents of genuine thrill — a gorgeous Dutch amateur body builder I’d met whilst skiing and a stacked guy I met in the SU who insisted on sending me naked pictures of himself despite me sending him none in return. Leaking was suddenly proving a thrilling hobby. As it soon was for the entire executive committee by the time the election was over.
By this point in the campaign, I had found that the fun and joy I had got out of my main hobby at the time, student politics, had withered away and I felt betrayed by people who I thought were my friends launching the most astonishing personal attacks on me. It felt like an enormous relief to be able to push my side of the story and exercise some control over the narrative that I had lost control over. It was fun, exciting and it wound up bottom-feeders like Shapland and Loo. Harry Cole, who is now Political Editor of the Sun newspaper, is beguiling and loquacious and I found myself wanting to speak to Naomi, Paul and Ben less and Harry more.
Whilst the Libdems are full of ugly, charmless men whose needs as children have clearly gone unmet, the Tories are full of the English equivalent of American Psycho types who just happen to get off on politics rather than murder. In terms of entertainment the psychos were always more fun than the po-faced woke-scolds who inhabited Liberal Youth. They dress better. Their personal hygiene isn’t quite so questionable. They hold better parties and social events. The LibDems wear socks and sandals, pretend that delivering leaflets is fun then cry into their pillows at night. The Tories would never tolerate being associated with a sh*t show organisation like Liberal Youth. At this time Tory Bear and his friends just seemed so much more appealing.
Another bizarre feature of this election was being attacked on ideological grounds by much older men in the party. I don’t actually know what Elaine’s politics really are other than Liberal Democrat. I, however, am an out and proud Libertarian. Two individuals in particular, Duncan Borrowman and James Graham, seasoned party members with a reputation for being bullies, start to pile on me as well as making personal remarks. I suppose they perceived my running for Chair of Liberal Youth as some sort of Libertarian entryism. But the election wasn’t really about that — it should have been about who could run Liberal Youth the most competently. I wasn’t going to take the organisation in any sort of ideological direction. I just wanted to run better campaigns. As a woman in my 30s, I now have no interest in student politics whatsoever. This makes it more amazing that people old enough to know better were so heavily invested in a student election that just wasn’t important in the grand scheme of things. The fact that two grown men in their 40s were so keen and so quick to launch sustained personal attacks against a woman more than half their age over kiddie politics still blows my mind. Creepy old men are going to creep…
I was incredibly sad and depressed in the wake of the Liberal Youth election, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t also relieved. When I think about all the things I was blamed for which had nothing to do with me whatsoever the taste is still a little bitter. Had I been elected as Chair I would have had to spend the next year spending time with the creeps and weirdos who had spent the election making fake Facebook groups and profiles to catfish me with and making sexist and/or racist remarks about me being from the Middle East. I imagine it would have been like being Queen of the Mole People.
Ultimately, I think I ran for Liberal Youth Chair because I was encouraged to do so by Naomi, Paul and Ben and because I liked them so much and because I wanted them to like me and approve of me in turn. In retrospect, I had far too little experience of youth politics (and life/politics in the UK) to be running for such an office. I also wonder what Naomi, Paul and Ben were thinking, asking someone they didn’t really know very well to run for this office?
Without a doubt, meeting Naomi Smith was one of the worse things that ever happened to me. Never in my life have I been so ostensibly used by another person under the proffer of friendship. After the election Naomi, Paul and Ben quietly stopped talking to me altogether. The favour I had sought so hard to curry entirely vanished. I was also introduced to a particularly manipulative sexual predator through my involvement with Liberal Youth. I wish I’d spent this time with the other people I’d met in the LibDems and with my friends at Uni.
Elaine was later ousted as the Chair of Liberal Youth prematurely after her incompetence could be tolerated no more and is now pounding the pavements of Tower Hamlets as the LibDem’s PPC for that constituency. Naomi has since gone on to losing bigger and better elections — long may her luck continue.
Never fear, any desire I had to stand for public office has evaporated entirely. I have found myself to be much more comfortable thinking and talking about policy outside party politics. I appreciate that my politics are far too extreme to be palatable to the public on this side of the Atlantic. I shall remain ideologically pure socialising with think tank types and the like whilst happily working in the private sector and publishing the occasional novel.
So why put all this down now? Well… Writing this has been somewhat cathartic. I also feel like many of the individuals involved don’t really know my side of the story or how this affected me and, consequently, I feel that there must be a record. I also want people to know the role of Naomi Smith and Paul Pettinger in this saga as much blame was place entirely on me undeservedly. I was unknowingly stuck in the middle of someone else’s war. I also feel completely used and manipulated to this day, and I want to say: “that’s not okay,” even if no one ever reads it.
There are apologies owed that one will never get in life. Many of mine were accrued at this juncture. As for the apologies I think I owe, it has definitely occurred to me to apologise to Elaine and Liberal Youth’s returning officer at the time, Mark Valladres for putting him through — let’s just say — more excitement than he ever asked for. On the other hand, when I think of the behaviour of the people who supported Elaine, such as her close Uni friend: Shapland the Racist, how she undermined me in my position on the committee before the race even began and how I believe she told overt lies to get elected e.g. that she could give London Liberal Youth “devolved funding,” any strain on my conscience evaporates pretty quickly.
If there’s any lesson to take away from this, my advice is: if you have any aspirations to be an adult politician, I suggest you give student politics a miss. Enjoy your time at University instead.
Nota bene: This is my account of the events that transpired. My subjective feelings and recollections twelve years after the fact. Whilst I’ve taken care to look up dates and events and in what order they occurred, I am happy to correct any factual errors I’ve made.
I’m also happy to give ‘right of reply’ to anyone mentioned in this article — though I don’t have everyone’s current email addresses and am disinclined to go looking for them — so if you feel aggrieved by this anything in this account, feel free to contact me through my website: sayde-scarlett.com.
Thank you for reading — I hope you found my thoughts interesting. You can find me on Twitter: @Sayde_Scarlett